June 2014 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

EI? EI? Oh.

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Employment insurance is supposed to tide unemployed Canadians over until they can find work. But in most cases, it does not. Nearly two-thirds of the unemployed are now denied benefits, an all-time low. Check out the video, above, that we’ve just launched where we track the changes to EI regulations over the past few years.

Even for those who do qualify, things are worse than ever. They must now wait for weeks to get the benefits they need, because of government staffing cuts. And if you feel you’ve been improperly turned down, there’s another hurdle—more than a year can go by before your appeal is even heard. More than 1,000 part-time referees have been replaced with only 35 people in the new Social Security Tribunal and they are trying to handle a backlog of 10,000 appeals. An impossible task.

With Harper government cutbacks, unemployed workers have been getting the short end of several sticks for quite a while. A foolish attempt to blame union members for the claims backlog in 2011 has gone by the board. Government policies are the problem, and there is no sign they’re about to change.

Real people are being hurt on a daily basis. Wait times for benefits are soaring. For several years now, there have been too many heart-wrenching personal anecdotes to ignore. 82% of Canadians going on sick leave or parental leave now wait more than four weeks to obtain the support to which they are entitled.

Across the country last year, out of 330,000 EI claims waiting for processing, 200,000 of them were more than 29 days old. What is the government doing? Reducing staff.

120 EI offices have been closed, replaced by 19 centralized locations. The cost to our members? 600 jobs—and the government’s long-term plan is to slash more than ten times that: 6,600 employees by 2017. The cost to unemployed workers? How does one measure the amount of frustration and hardship this government has imposed?

Phone for help? 30% of calls simply go unanswered. In 2006, when the present government first came to power, the figure was 8%. Our diminishing number of front-line workers simply can’t handle the volume.

What are the unemployed, who have been paying EI premiums all along, supposed to live on? Instead of receiving the benefits to which they’re entitled, they’re being advised to apply for social assistance. Meanwhile, more than two billion dollars that could be spent on training will remain unspent, while the EI fund is rolling in billions of dollars of surpluses, being used to pay down the deficit instead.

The economic devastation of the government’s EI policies on some provinces is by now a matter of record, despite calm assurances from the Harper government. When the Atlantic premiers finally get around to releasing a long-awaited report they commissioned on the EI system, we can only expect more bad news on that front.

To sum up: our EI system is badly broken. It’s leaving countless unemployed people and their families to fend for themselves. It’s not providing the training it should be. It’s harming regional economies. And it’s putting our members between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as reduced staff and resources make it impossible to cope. For far too many Canadians, the 2015 election will not come soon enough. But we should all be preparing for it.


It's been an uphill battle for our GLBT brothers and sisters to have their basic human rights acknowledged, and it's far from over yet.

It's true that same-sex marriage is not only a legal right in Canada but has become part of the mainstream. But while discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been outlawed here in Canada, there is still resistance to allowing the GBLT community to fully and freely live their lives

Earlier this month, the Conservatives stopped an attempt to include transgender rights in its cyberbullying bill, and for fifteen months Bill-279, which would protect transgender people from discrimination, has been held up in the Conservative-dominated Senate. That fight, believe it or not, has been going on for ten years.

Miles to go, in other words. Homophobia, like racism, is no longer officially acceptable, but it's still very much in evidence all the same.  I can't imagine what it's like to be a GBLT teen - the relentless harassment, threats and violence they face every day just for being themselves is heart-wrenching.

And the Conservatives, for whatever reason, appear unwilling to combat its evil cousin, transphobia.

Is there still a need for Pride? You bet.

GLBT people from all over the world, and their allies, are gathering in Toronto at the fourth World Pride Human Rights Conference, for a massive celebration. Many battles for the freedom to live and to love have been won, although not all around the world by any means.  I am humbled by the participants who have come to World Pride from Uganda, who risk lengthy prison terms back home, and whose entry to Canada for the Conference was initially blocked by the Harper government--until public shaming forced a reversal of the decision.

The Pride parade is all-inclusive. Everyone is welcome, and every one of the participants should feel proud for participating in it and supporting a major human rights campaign that began decades ago.

The giant strides my union has made over the years on this front certainly makes me proud to be a member. In 1986 we won a six-year battle with Treasury Board to get sexual orientation included in a no-discrimination contract clause. It took another 12 long years to win an inclusive definition of "spouse," for our largest Treasury Board bargaining unit, and now all contracts contain this language. We went on to win same-sex spousal benefits, and have more recently achieved breakthroughs on transgender rights in a number of bargaining units.  Some years ago my own bargaining team, of which I was a member, negotiated same-sex marriage leave at the Canada Revenue Agency - long before same-sex marriage was even legalized.  

Hard bargaining, non-stop lobbying and a number of successes in the courts forced the government to back down from its determined opposition to equality inside and outside the workplace.

Let's give credit where credit is due. Grassroots PSAC activists formed ad hoc GLBT committees many years ago, and ensured that their concerns were recognized as a union issue. GLBT members are now a recognized and energetic presence in our union. The PSAC at all levels has been sponsoring and taking part in union Pride events, and has strongly supported the GLBT struggle for equality in our own union, in our communities across the country, and internationally as well, working through our Social Justice Fund. We have a 20-person official delegation attending the Toronto Conference this week, and our own float and many more PSAC members will join the parade on the weekend.

Yes, you could say I'm proud, all right.  But not complacent, because there are miles still to go.

That's why I'm marching.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pipelines and people

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No surprise. The Harper government has endorsed the Enbridge proposal.  Sure, the approval comes with 209 conditions to be imposed by the National Energy Board (NEB), including consulting the First Nations along the proposed pipeline route. But, with respect, should that not be the Crown's job?

We can hope that this will be another nail in this government's coffin.  After all,  it wasn't only environmentalists who poured out spontaneously all over BC to protest the approval, but ordinary folks. You know, voters. And this decision hits them very close to home.

OK, but there was public consultation, right? Well, yes and no. The NEB's Joint Review Panel issued a directive to exclude presentations on the broader environmental, health and social impacts of building the pipeline. Even so, it received a good deal of input from concerned citizens, whom the defenders of Big Oil lost no time in slandering.

The Harper government must have been listening--to Big Oil, I mean. In its omnibus Bill C-38, the federal government forces people to submit a multi-page form to the NEB before they can even send in a letter. While the NEB received 1,544 submissions at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, under the new rules they accepted only 175 when it came to the hearings in Ontario on the proposed Line 9 project. According to the Globe & Mail, the NEB received applications from 2,118 individuals and organizations who wanted to participate in another pipeline hearing (Trans Mountain). The Board limited 1,250 of them to writing letters, and told another 468 that they wouldn't be allowed even to do that.

Never mind the public, then, and never mind the scientists either. The Harper government has no use for either citizen opinion or evidence.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Dodging a bullet in Ontario

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The June 12 Ontario election was a watershed moment for Ontario--and for the rest of the country, too. Tim Hudak and his conservative platform was overwhelmingly rejected.

No one can accuse Tim Hudak of lacking boldness. He staked out his political turf in very clear terms, even if his numbers didn't add up.

He came out swinging against unions. While he claimed to have backed off his proposal to eliminate the Rand formula, he called for an end to political activity by unions.  And, we had every reason to believe he would have quickly gone back to the Rand issue if elected.

Hudak wanted to boot out 100,000 Ontario public sector workers, mostly in the areas of education, health and social services, over the next two years. And he promised to impose a wage freeze on the remaining workers--after opposing a proposed Liberal wage freeze in 2012 for not going far enough.

He pledged a "million jobs plan" based on seriously faulty mathematics, as even Tory-sympathetic economists noted. In fact, if the math is done right and the promised reduction of the Ontario public service is also taken into account, as well as the slashing of "green" jobs (Hudak opposed subsidies for wind and solar energy), there could arguably have been a net loss of jobs under Hudak's "plan."

Who was advising Hudak about economics during his campaign? A far-right, racist American with math problems of his own (see point 4 at the link). And Hudak's disgraceful electoral tactics these past weeks are also worthy of mention--voters were directed to the wrong polls, or encouraged to decline their ballots. (We might also note Hudak's *Globe and Mail*'s editorial board endorsement--which turned out to be for Kathleen Wynne, overruled by the editor-in-chief and the *Globe*'s wealthy publisher.)

But when all was said and done, the voters said no, in an enormous defeat for American-style hard-right politics in Canada. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the package--austerity for everyone but the rich, and extremist anti-labour measures.

The hard work, determination and organizing skills of Ontario unions and the Ontario Federation of Labour deserve special mention. It led an all-out effort across the province to reject Hudak and his agenda, and there were countless volunteers on the ground. In fact, the cooperation and coordination of the labour movement to get their members to the polls, should serve as an example of what has to be done across the country when the 2015 federal election rolls around.

The people of Ontario have spoken. That's a welcome sign. But let's be cautious.

The job of the labour movement will be to hold Kathleen Wynne's feet to the fire.  Ontarians voted for a promised provincial pension plans, higher wages for personal care workers, and child care staff, and for a minimum wage that keeps pace with inflation.  The Liberals may have moved to the left for the election, as they often do.  It's our job to make sure that the promises are kept and that we can push the province, and the country, further left in the future. 

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Big Brother

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When it comes to the Harper government, it takes a lot to shock me these days. But shocked I am by the news that the public service has now been instructed to spy on Canadian citizens engaging in lawful demonstrations and protests.

Information gathered will be submitted to the Government Operations Centre, which is supposed to deal with coordination and logistics in case of national emergencies. It’s not supposed to be a spy agency. But, to this government, even peaceful dissent apparently requires massive state surveillance:

The Government Operations Centre is seeking your assistance in compiling a comprehensive listing of all known demonstrations which will occur either in your geographical area or that may touch on your mandate. We will compile this information and make this information available to our partners unless of course, this information is not to be shared and not available on open sources. In the case of the latter, this information will only be used by the GOC for our Situational Awareness.


The email above was sent to all federal government departments. Even law-abiding citizens, says Public Safety Parliamentary Secretary Roxanne James, could turn rogue. “Peaceful protests can suddenly turn violent, just as law-abiding citizens can suddenly create a crime.” Best keep us all under continual surveillance—any one of us could be a potential criminal.

And just who are these “partners” with whom the GOC is happily sharing information about us?

Never mind the obvious fact that this surveillance is “way over the line in terms of lawful activity,” as security specialist Wesley Wark puts it, a blatant violation of our Charter rights. Who is supposed to do all this spying? Ordinary public sector workers, including PSAC members?

How does that square with the Values and Ethics Code we’re all supposed to abide by? You know, the parts where it requires public workers to uphold the law, to act impartially and in the public interest? Now they’re being asked to spy on their fellow-citizens—perhaps even on each other, given that protests and rallies are hardly unknown to our activist membership.

Do legal strikes count as “protests,” by the way? Will our picket lines be monitored by the Government Operations Centre as a threat to the state? Will members find themselves included in government data-banks for perfectly legal strike activity? Will others be required to inform on their fellow-members?

What are the values here? And where are the ethics?

Turning citizens into spies is something we associate with dictatorships. We’re not about to let that happen here without a heck of a fight.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Pensions next?

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Target benefit plan,” eh? What’s next—a target wage plan?

“We’ll try to pay you $22 an hour like the contract says. But if things get tight at budget time, we might have to drop that to $14 or so. OK by you?”

No. Not OK.

Workplace pensions are, in fact, deferred wages. They’re a forced savings plan that permits, or should permit, retired Canadians to live decently. A defined benefits plan (DBP)—what our members presently have—is a contract: in return for making regular contributions, a set retirement income, with indexing for inflation, is guaranteed.

Enter Kevin Sorenson, minister of state for finance. He has a brand-new scheme in hand, and he wants to sell it to employers in federally-regulated industries and Crown Corporations. He calls it a “shared risk plan,” but it’s no such thing. It’s just shifting risk onto employees and pensioners.

This idea was first put into practice in New Brunswick in 2012, when the provincial government repealed its Public Service Superannuation Act and replaced it with An Act Respecting Pensions under the Public Service Superannuation Act. Overnight, a guaranteed retirement income was turned into a maybe-yes-maybe-no one—and this legislation was made retroactive, affecting current retirees who thought they could look forward to a stable and secure retirement income.

Now Quebec has jumped on the rollback bandwagon as well, promising to give municipalities the power to shift to a risk-shifting plan by Christmas. Needless to say, protests are already building.

The rollback people are using the 2008 recession as an excuse to go after employees and pensioners—the defined benefit plans just aren’t affordable any more, they wail. But that’s not the case now that the economic recovery is proceeding. Air Canada’s defined benefits plan, for example, had a shortfall of $3.7 billion last year, but has now eliminated it entirely. 40% of pension plans in the Mercer Pension Health Index were fully funded by the beginning of this year—up from a mere 6% in 2013. A report issued by pension consulting firm Aon Hewitt indicates that the average DBP is now 95.4% funded, compared to 74% last year. Even more telling, 36% of pension plans are now in a surplus position, as opposed to 3% of them only a year ago.

Crisis? What crisis?

But any excuse will do. Eroding pension plans by shifting risk onto vulnerable employees and retirees with limited ability to absorb income cuts is quite in keeping with the Harper government’s determination to lower the boom on public sector workers and improve the profitability of their corporate friends in the private sector. Instead of showing leadership by improving retirement income security for all Canadians, it wants to “level down,” threatening young workers and seniors across the country.

This is not the way to go, obviously. The Canadian Labour Congress has for some time been calling for an increase in the Canada Pension Plan/Quebec Pension Plan, which the Harper government is strongly resisting and has successfully blocked up to now.

An emergency resolution from the PSAC at the recent CLC convention, calling for pressure on all levels of government to prevent the introduction of Target Benefit Plans, was warmly supported by the delegates, and with the CLC’s new leadership, real action on this front can be expected. The Harper government wants “consultation” on the matter, and is about to get an earful, I suspect. Closer to home, Minister Tony Clement says he has no plans to convert the pension plan of federal government workers anytime soon. But we should take this with the usual fist-sized grain of salt: Clement, I suspect, has his hands full already, trying to grab our sick leave in this round of collective bargaining, and he doesn’t want to open up another front in his on-going war with the unions.

Next year, who knows? Sorenson’s trial balloon has barely been launched at this point. But forewarned is forearmed: we’d better prepare for the worst, because sooner or later under the present government the worst always seems to arrive.

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